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Crime and Deterrence

October 16, 2013
by Russ Long

I.     What is Crime

Robertson (1989:123) maintains that a crime is "an act that contravenes a law." Generally speaking, deviant behavior becomes a crime when it is too disruptive and uncontrollable via informal sanctions. Like all forms of deviance, crime is a relative matter. Most people, however, in any given society tend to view the difference between criminal and noncriminal behavior as being absolute.

II.     Sources of Crime Information

Most of our information concerning crime comes from the FBI's "Uniform Crime Report (UCR)." The UCR includes crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, and arson.

The UCR is criticized sometimes because of the information it does not report . It, for example, includes only offenses that are known to the police and as many as two out of three crimes are not reported to the police. UCR statistics under estimate the crime rate because of underreporting,. Due to this weakness, many criminologists prefer to use the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). The NCVS asks people whether they have experienced a crime. It may come closer to documenting the full extent of criminal behavior in the United States.

The UCR is also criticized because it tends to focus on crimes committed by the poor. Reiman (1998), for example, argues that the UCR does not do a very good job of cataloguing white collar crime. Reiman (1998) contends that this is especially unfortunate because white collar crime cost the American public more than street crime.

III.     Types of Crime

Four categories of crime are discussed below. They are violent crime, crimes against property, victimless crimes, and white-collar crime.

A.     Crimes of Violence

Americans fear crimes of violence the most. During the 1970s the rate of violent crime rose dramatically. The increase in crime subsided during the early 1980s, but it began to rise again during the later part of the 1980s. The rate of violent crime is, once again, falling in the latter part of the 1990s.

Many people fear murder at the hands of a complete stranger, but the data demonstrate that 57 percent of murder victims knew their killers. Only 20 percent of murders fall under the category of street crime.

The United States is the most violent society of all industrialized nations. The U.S. has the highest murder rate in the world. A single American city like Chicago or Detroit has murder rates higher than the entire country of England.

Hand Guns are the weapons used in 44 percent of the 20,000 murders that occurred in the US. The murder rate for handgun homicide in 1980 in the United States was 77 times greater than it is in England or Japan (Robertson, 1989:124).

The primary cause of deaths by hand guns is the wide spread access to hand guns. Ordinary citizens often claim that they need a gun to protect themselves. Unfortunately, many handgun related murders occur because of the presence of the guns. Only 2 percent of all hand gun slaying occur because one person was trying to protect themselves. The remainder of handgun related deaths was homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths. In most of these cases the victims were family members, friends, or acquaintances.

B.     Crimes against Property

Crimes against property include crimes where criminals steal, or vandalize property, that belongs to someone else. These crimes are far more numerous than violent crimes. One occurs about every three seconds. Like violent crimes, property related crimes rose dramatically during the 1970s and leveled off during the 1980s. One possible explanation calls attention to the age structure of the United States. Data show that young people between 16 and 25 years old commit by far the most crimes against property. As the baby boom generation ages, it is logical to expect the crime rate to decline.

C.     Crime without Victims

Presumably no one suffers from victimless crimes. Crime without victims, however, is something of a misnomer. The assumption is there are no injuries caused by these crimes. Robertson (1989:125) points out, however, that the individuals who violate the law may, in fact, suffer.  Perhaps the term "victimless crime" refers to the fact that there are no victims to press charges.

Examples of "Victimless Crimes"

Prostitution, Gambling, Illegal Drug Use, Bookies, vagrancy, and prohibited sexual acts among consenting adults.

These crimes are "morality crimes." They are very difficult to control because there is no victim to press charges. Those who engage in the activity regard the law as inappropriate, not themselves. Another issue regarding victimless crimes is that they consume an enormous amount of police effort. Further, they stimulate activity in organized crime because "victimless crimes" usually involve something desirable where large profits can be made (e.g., drugs or sex).

D.     White-Collar Crime

For information on White Collar Crime see " White-Collar Crime "

IV.     Who are the Criminals?

FBI crime statistics (as presented in Reiman, 1998, Robertson, 1989) indicate that the typical criminal is:

A.     Young

People under 25 years old commit nearly half of all crimes.

B.     Male

Men were four times as likely to commit crimes as females.

C.     Urban

People arrested were much more likely to be from cities as opposed to small towns

D.     Black

29% of those arrested were black (they make up only 12% of the total population.)

V.     The True Character of Crime is Masked

Many scholars (e.g., Robertson, 1989:126, Reiman, 1998, Barkan, 1997) maintain that these statistics distort the true character of the criminal element in the US. There are three reasons for this.

A.     Most Crimes Go Unreported

The actual crime rate is nearly three times higher that the reported crime rate.

B.     Most Crime Data Are Biased

It does not concentrate on upper-class crime.

C.     Most Crimes Go Undetected

The largest group of criminals is, in fact, those that go undetected by the criminal justice system.  Self-report studies reveal that nearly 100 percent of Americans have committed crimes. "The typical criminal is not the typical criminal at all, but rather the one who typically gets arrested, prosecuted, and convicted" (1989:127).

D.     Who Goes to Jail?

Robertson (1989:127-8) points out there are a variety of stages that an offender must go through before finally going to jail. Of all the crimes committed, most are not even reported to the police. For reported crimes, few lead to arrest. If an arrest occurs, the chance is less than 50 percent that a conviction will result. Finally, it is questionable that the convicted criminal will go to prison. Out of 1000 felonies, only 3 individuals serve more than a year in prison (see the chart below).

Example: Who goes to Jail?
Out of 1000 felonies committed ...

540 are reported to the police

of those, 65 lead to arrests

of those arrests, 36 are convicted

of those convicted, 17 are sentenced to custody

of those, 3 are sentenced to over a year in prison

Source: (Kornblum, 1988:219)

VI.     Selecting the Criminal

Selecting the criminal explains why the prison population has the socio-demographic characteristics that it has. The prison population does not look like the population of people who commit crimes.

A.     The Political Process

The definition of which behavior is considered as criminal begins in political bodies such as city councils, state legislatures, or Congress (see Reiman, 1998). These political bodies pass laws against certain kinds of behavior. Legislative bodies decide penalties for violating the laws they pass.

B.     Selection by the Victim

Two out of three crimes are never reported to the police. The victim makes a decision whether to report. Robertson (1989:127) contends there are two factors which determine whether or not a given offender moves to the next stage.

1.     The seriousness of the offense.

2.     The status of the offender.

With reference to the seriousness of the offense, petty crimes and white-collar crimes seldom come to the attention of the police. The social status of the offender has great impact on who the police arrest and who ultimately goes to jail. Most Juveniles in the arrest statistics are lower-class males. This does not mean that lower-class males commit the most crimes. They are simply the ones arrested.

C.     Selection by the Police

The police do not arrest everyone they encounter in an illegal act. The police, in fact, have great discretion when it comes to whether to arrest or not.  Police tend to arrest people from the lower class because they perceive them as bad characters.

Who Do the Police Ticket?

Piliavan and Brair (1964) road with police in a West Coast town. They point out that the police encounter many minor violations of the law. Those violators with bad character were the ones arrested. Race, dress and demeanor were important determinants. The police arrested 2/3's of those individuals who were defiant, nonchalant, and uncooperative. On the other hand, when the individuals stopped were polite and cooperative, only 5 percent of those encountered lead to arrests.

D.     Selection in the Courts

1.     Selection by Attorneys: Plea Bargains

Selecting occurs as well in the court system. Court officials encouraged poor people to plea-bargain, who cannot afford attorneys, in 90 percent of the cases (see Chambliss, 1973). They would plead guilty to lesser offenses.

2.     Selection by Judges

Judges also take part in the selection procedure. Robertson (1989:128) points out that judges perceive higher class offenders (white-collar criminals) as having suffered enough through damage to their reputation and perhaps loss of employment.

VII.     Trends in Crime

The tables discussed below are explored in the first data projects that Introductory Sociology students complete this semester. For in-depth details of what students should learn from the tables, consult the guidelines in Data Project 1

Is crime increasing? Are crime rates going up or down? What is the difference? It is possible for one to increase while the other decreases.

Numbers of Crimes:

Determining the number of crimes is simple. All one needs to do is visit the FBI Web page and look for the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). 


A crime rate refers to the numbers of crimes per 100,000 people.  It is possible for one to increase while the other decreases?

Crime Numbers vs. Crime Rates

Table #1a (in Data Project 1) indicates that the overall number of crimes in the United States increases from 11,349,700 in 1976 to 12,431,400 in 1985.

Table #1b shows that the overall crime rate fell from 5287 per 100,000 people in 1976 to 5207 per 100,000 in 1985.

Crime numbers increase while rates fall because of population increase. There are more people are people in 1985 compared to 1976.  The crime rate declines because the numbers of crimes experienced by every 100,000 people declines. Individuals are committing fewer crimes in 1985 than in 1976.

One should also pay attention to the geographic area one is located in. Americans have been fed a steady diet of crime-fear for decades . Americans see nightly stories of drive-by shooting and drug-related gang murders. One is not told, however, that much of that kind of crime occurs in a only few neighborhoods in small parts of cities. Should one be afraid of crime if one lives in North Dakota? (See: State Crime)

Even if individuals live in a large metropolitan area in the United States, they may be safer than they suspect. Large cities are notorious for crime. Rural and small town Americans are, likewise, perceived as safe. These perceptions, however, are not necessarily supported by the facts. (See: City Crime)

VIII.     Structural Components of Crime

What causes a change in crime rates? Are crime-rates most affected by expenditures on law enforcement? There is an impression among the voting public that crime is on the rise in the United States and, therefore, we need to spend more money for more police and more prisons. Perhaps crime rates are more influenced by structural features like performance of the economy or demographic changes (see Kornblum, 1988:207).

Even if the voting public accepts the fact that crime rates have decreased, there is a tendency to view such declines as a result of increased public spending on law enforcement. Often, the drive for increased spending on crime prevention is related to political leaders, who have ties to larger spending programs in the criminal justice system.

Below are some structural features that cause crime rates to fluctuate which have nothing to do with the criminal justice system.

A.     Demographic Change

One component is demographic change associated with changes in the age structure of the population.


The baby boomers have long passed from being young. Baby boomers are now over thirty years old. There are fewer young people today [as a percent of the total population] than there were 15 to 20 years ago. Since young people commit the most crimes, it is logical to expect that crime rates will drop as the population ages. (See William Julius Wilson for a demographic analysis on the African American community.)

B.     Rapid Shifts in Population

There are other components that cause variation in crime rates. Rapidly growing cities have trouble keeping their police forces large enough to cope with the expanding population. One should not forget the problems associated with the "transitional neighborhood" as a cause of deviance.

C.     The Condition of the Economy

There are also links to economic performance. As the economy fluctuates, so does the crime rate. It makes sense that when the economy falters. Crime rates increase as those removed from the legitimate economy seek less-legitimate avenues in the informal or shadow economy in order to survive.

IX.     Corrections


How successful are Prisons in rehabilitating criminals? Not VERY! Three-fourths of the released criminals are re-arrested within four years.  Recidivism refers to ex-offenders who are arrested for another criminal offense once they have been released from jail.

Death Penalty and Homicide Rates

Do states that have the death penalty have lowered homicide rates? NO! There is no difference between the states that execute and those that do not.

The following material explores four philosophies regarding corrections. Why do we put people in prison? What are our goals of incarcerating people?

A.     Retribution

Robertson (1989:129) contends that one reason for putting people in prison is to punish the offender. The state is placed in the position of "applying revenge on behalf of the victim." This is the "eye for an eye" philosophy.

B.     Deterrence

Most of our police forces operate under a philosophy called deterrence theory. Deterrence theory contends that if the public knows the consequences of deviance, many individuals will not commit a crime. "Through punishment, corrections serve to deter the offender from deviating again and it scares others who might be tempted into crime" (Robertson, 1989:129). There are three aspects of deterrence theory. In order for deterrence to be successful each aspect should be true.

  1. The individual has to know what the law states. Without clear knowledge of the law, the individual cannot know he/she is in the process of violating the law.
  2. The potential offender must know what the punishment is. How tough will the punishment be? It makes a difference to a potential bank robber when planning a holdup whether the penalty is 1 year or 20 years in prison. Likewise, is a white-collar criminal is relatively sure that they will get a light punishment, they might be more inclined to embezzle from a bank or to use substandard building material.
  3. Will an offender receive punishment? If punishment is certain, then the philosophy of deterrence comes closer to achieving its goals. If, on the other hand, one is relatively sure that they will not be punished, deterrence is not achieved.
  4. Critique of Deterrence Theory: The current system of criminal justice demonstrates none of these characteristics. The law is too complex, the severity of punishment depends on the jurisdiction (city, state, federal), and it depends on social class.

C.     Incapacitation

This philosophy seeks to prevent the offender from committing further crimes. Some criminals are seen as not being responsible for their actions. None-the-less ordinary citizens do not want them on the streets. Mental illness is sometimes seen as an explanation for criminal behavior. Often mentally ill are not sent to prison, but are still "incapacitated" in hospitals or similar institutions.

D.     Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation involves teaching inmates skills and trades that will, hopefully, give them a chance to become law-abiding productive citizens once they are released from prison. The correction system might "serve to reform the offender by providing skills and attitudes that make return to a law-abiding life possible" (Robertson, 1989:129). Reiman (1998) argues that our criminal justice system fails if we release people, who have paid for their crime, with no legitimate skills. The ex-felon is likely to return to crime with no other legitimate options at his or her disposal.


Barkan, Steven E.

1997 Criminology: A Sociological Understanding. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kornblum, William

1988 Sociology in a Changing World. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Reiman, Jeffrey

1998 The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Robertson, Ian

1989 Society: A Brief Introduction. New York: Worth Publishing.


1995 Uniform Crime Report.